The Wikwemikong Unceded First Nation will be going to court to win back title on unsold islands surrounding Manitoulin Island and along the north shore of Lake Huron. The band has put both the Ontario and Federal government on notice of its intention to commence a legal action arising out of unresolved legal issues dating back to 1862. The band has tried for over a decade to resolve these matters with the upper levels of government.
Following the thirteen year specific claims process established by the federal government, Canada has refused to recognize the band's legal interests, therefore, forcing them into taking legal action. The land in question includes unpatented and unsold islands surrounding Manitoulin Island, and along the north shore of Lake Huron, in the Districts of Algoma, Manitoulin and Parry Sound.
Chief Pitawanakwat says the action will not affect the rights of existing owners. "We are seeking legal recognition of what we know is rightfully ours. We are not infringing on the rights of existing owners. The band is not claiming privately owned land or islands. It has undertaken to ensure that the legal rights and legal interests of all third parties are properly protected.
This legal action will involve an accounting with the federal government, and a legal recognition of Wikwemikong's interest in what are presently described as Ontario Crown islands in this area. We do expect compensation for those areas of land now owned by third party interests, as well as the return of title of the unsold lands in those area."
The unresolved lands issue raises serious questions of conflict of interest on the part of both senior levels of government, according to Chief Pitawanakwat.
"By the Bondhead Treaty of 1836, the Crown recognized the exclusive interest of the Ottawas and Chippewas(Ojibwas) by agreeing to withdraw its claim to these islands and not to recognize the aboriginal title of the Ottawas and Chippewas. In return, those tribes agreed to allow other Indians to also use and occupy such islands."
"In 1862, the Crown attempted to modify the Bondhead Treaty, to the extent that it attempted to secure a surrender of Manitoulin Island. This treaty is commonly known as the Manitoulin Treaty of 1862. No other islands were subject to the surrender negotiations. On October 6, 1862, Chief and principal men of those bands located west of Heywood Sound (Manitowaning Bay) and the Manitoulin Gulf (South Bay) signed the treaty. The Chiefs and principal men of those bands located east of this area (Wikwemikong) did not sign or assent to it. We, therefore, do not recognize this treaty since our band never participated in the negotiations or signing it," explained Chief Pitawanakwat.
The Crown began surveying and selling various islands in the claim area after 1862. Those sales were protested by the bands on Manitoulin Island. "In 1914, following a 32 year dispute, during which the Wikwemikong Indian Band and the Manitoulin Island area and north shore bands were excluded, Canada and Ontario agreed between them that the islands surrounding Manitouin Island and along the north shore of Lake Huron were Ontario Crown Islands," said Chief Pitawanakwat.
Over the years, the Wikwemikong Band has continued to use, occupy and enjoy many of the islands located off the north, east, and south shores of Wikwemikong.
In 1975, Indian Affairs was once again placed on notice with respect to the islands issue. A claim under the federal government's specific claims policy was filed in 1984 with the Department of Indian Affairs. "We have now been told the federal government of Canada denies that the band has any right, title or interest in the off-shore Islands," Chief Pitawanakwat said. She says the issue is of importance to the province in light of the amalgamation process now underway. The Town of Little Current and Howland Township will be amalgamated with McGregor Bay and the Bay of Islands on January 1st of next year forming the new Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and Islands. But both Wikwemikong and the United Chiefs and Councils of Manitouiln say it's not legal because First Nations have interests in those islands.
"This year, the Harris government signed an amalgamation order with respect to islands in the District of Manitoulin, over the objection of the Wikwemikong band," said Chief Pitawanakwat. She contined, "Both the Ontario government and the federal level are in a conflict of interest situation in relation to these islands. While the band recognizes that land related issues like this are best dealt with in an out-of-court setting, the positions taken by both these senior levels of government have forced the band into legal action to protect its legal rights." Chief Pitawanakwat says cautions have been filed with the four districts; Manitoulin, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma. She says now that the Ontario and Federal government have been put on notice, and the cautions are in place, the band will officially launch its court action on December 8th, in Ontario General Division Court. She added the band is funding part of the proceedings but it will be asking for funding, through the courts, to support what she believes will be a long drawn-out process.
"For 161 years, our people have gone through the process. I expect, and our people expect, that there will be some time required for this to go through the court process. And we will stay in the process as long as it takes for justice to be reached for our people. We are a patient people," added Chief Pitawanakwat.